Music is an unquestionably important element of any successful film, providing more than just “background sound”, but a character in its own right. At times moving, soaring, saddening and uplifting, a great musical score not only sets a mood but transports us into endless worlds of imagination. From the advent of silent cinema to the emergence of the summer blockbuster, the great music from the movies has captivated us in emotional and fantastic ways.
As we approach another Academy Awards ceremony, here is a look back at 5 of the best film scores to have won the honor of Best Original Score.
NOTE: Over the 92 years of the Oscars, consider this just a snapshot of the best musical scores that have left indelible marks on our ears, hearts, and minds.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)- Composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Perhaps the pinnacle of music in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Austrian born Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s beautiful, whimsical and sweeping score to The Adventures of Robin Hood, lives on as a testament to the powerful tandem of film and music. A pioneer of the leitmotiv ( the use of recurring themes to represent a character or place), Korngold’s musical talents are on their greatest display with Robin Hood. Whether accompanying the sword fighting scenes of Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone, capturing the tender romance between Robin and Maid Marian, or the camaraderie between the Merry Men, Korngold’s score is passionate, rousing and filled with adventurism.
Beyond just winning the Oscar, the score of Robin Hood reinforced the place of the orchestra in film scoring; it influenced such later masters as John Williams who revived the classic Hollywood sound in his subsequent scores, in a time when the use of musical minimalism had become increasingly popular.
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) – Composed by John Williams
Arguably the most famous and perhaps greatest film score ever written, composer John Williams wrote more than just musical accompaniment, but a universe on its own of motifs and sounds that accentuated the visual splendor on the screen. Of all the great scores Maestro Williams has composed it’s a tough task to single one out as the best, yet his work on Star Wars probably comes the closest to having that distinction.
Even if A New Hope were the only Star Wars film Williams composed music for, it would still remain as a supreme showcase of musical brilliance. It is an extraordinary symphonic treat indeed. From the majestic Main Theme, the nostalgic and stirring Force Theme/Luke’s Theme, to the celebratory and melodically wonderful Throne Room, the score to A New Hope, as part of the movie and on one’s own, is so masterfully crafted, the genius of John Williams can’t be any clearer.
The Godfather Part II (1974)- Composed by Nino Rota, additional work by Carmine Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films are iconic for many reasons, not least of all for its haunting, stirring and romantically old-fashioned score. Like the score to Star Wars, Rota’s music immediately transcended the film itself, remaining instantly recognizable and as powerful as ever, even for those who have not seen the films.
The solitary and mournful trumpet of the main theme remains as affecting today as it did nearly 50 years ago. Other tracks like the love theme Speak Softly Love, Michael’s Theme and the Immigrant Theme leave impressions on us too, complementing the overarching theme of romanticism.
Most curiously Nino Rota was disqualified at the Oscar’s for The Godfather (1972)when it was discovered he had reused bits of his score to the 1958 film Fortunella. The Academy wisely reconsidered this decision for Part II, where on Oscar night Rota and his collaborator Carmine Coppola (Francis’ father) rightfully walked away with a tremendous honor for a truly tremendous musical score.
Titanic (1997)- Composed by James Horner
Amongst the best selling film soundtracks of all time, James Horner’s score for the epic Titanic is an integral part of the viewing experience; light and cheerful, ominous and deadly, exotic, distant and intimate, Horner’s score pays wonderful tribute to the memory, splendor, and majesty of the doomed luxury liner.
Filled with elements of Celtic and maritime melodies, the Titanic score is not just hauntingly beautiful, but intense and jolting. With vocals by Norwegian singer Sissel, the iconic track Hymn to the Sea immediately creates an atmosphere of beautiful melancholy, while other backing choral strains envelop us in a rich cascade of sound. Horner’s music brilliantly melds tragedy and hope, creating a score that places us right on that ship.
Other tracks of note include Hard to Starboard and Death of Titanic; tense, frightening and totally immersive, audiences feel the fear and anguish of the passengers as the mighty Titanic is swallowed by the ocean. They are masterful examples of musical storytelling, absolutely enhancing the film in marvelous ways. And who could, of course, forget Celine Dion’s rendition of My Heart will Go on?
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)- Composed by Maurice Jarre
French composer Maurice Jarre was not director David Lean’s first choice to score the epic Lawrence of Arabia, but fate would have it no other way. Jarre was only little known at the time, working mostly in the French cinema. Yet he rose to the challenge of scoring this ambitious film, ultimately creating what many film historians consider the finest film score ever written.
Exotic, vast and with a superb grasp of the Middle Eastern sound, Jarre’s score reflects so many different moods. From T.E. Lawrence’s heroism, the desolation of the desert, and the indomitable spirit of the Arab revolters, the music is both soft and suitably grand. As the overture begins with the booming use of the timpani, it becomes clear that what is about to be witnessed is not just a movie, but an event. When the warm strings enter into the picture, we are suddenly transported to the unknown in a fantastical and stirring musical journey. Like so many of the great film scores of history, Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia does not solely enhance the film, it exists on its own as a wondrous musical creation that will leave an impression every time it is listened to.